Bishan Bedi September 23, 2010

Graceful and gracious

Bishan Bedi's talent was vast and he had the heart to match. The beauty of his action was bewitching and he had the cruelty to go with it

Some years ago, while recuperating after surgery, I had a chance to put to the test HG Wells' dictum that the mind is the natural habitat of man. I was in intensive care and there were no books or television. To relax I had to travel inwards. And the image that helped was the poetry of Bishan Bedi's bowling.

I could see in my mind's eye the easy run-up, the fluid action, the follow-through, and the half-jump that confirmed to the batsman that he had been had. I marvelled at the contrast between the gentle curve of the ball in the air and its vicious pace off the wicket. The rainbow makes a beautiful arc, but it is predictable. Bedi's arc was pleasing and as a bonus its effect was unpredictable.

Bedi, the only Indian with over 1500 first-class wickets, claimed 266 wickets from 67 Tests. It is necessary to descend to figures when discussing an artiste like Bedi only because, in sport, beauty without cruelty is a silly notion favoured by those long in the tooth and short in memory. Every generation produces a great player who does not please the eye (Allan Border is a good example), but there is no great player who does not have the figures to show for it.

I once saw Bedi leave a batsman stranded down the wicket when the ball went the wrong way after it had seemed set to come in with the arm. Bedi was 53 years old then, and made no secret of his enjoyment at having fooled the batsman. This enjoyment was a big part of his game. "I dismissed Ian Chappell on 99 in a Test with just such a delivery," he recalled, demonstrating how he had held the ball in his palm and slid his wrist under it.

Like Wilfred Rhodes, he "dismissed the batsman even before the ball had pitched", thanks to the ability to apparently yank it back at the last moment

Bedi had the full repertoire of the finger-spinner, and must rate as one of the two or three finest bowlers of his type the game has seen. Like Wilfred Rhodes, he "dismissed the batsman even before the ball had pitched" (Cardus' words), thanks to the ability to apparently yank it back at the last moment. Unlike Hedley Verity and Derek Underwood, who both bowled much faster, Bedi didn't rely on the pitch for his wickets.

He was the most generous of bowlers and wore his stature lightly. This generosity extended to the opposition too. Bedi believes in the brotherhood of spinners, and all of them have access to his experience and wisdom. All they have to do is ask. On a turning track in Bangalore in 1986-87, a low-scoring match ended in Pakistan's favour by 16 runs after left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim was handed this gem from Bedi: "On a turner the most dangerous ball is the one that goes through straight."

Against Tony Lewis' Englishmen in 1972-73, Bedi claimed 25 wickets to BS Chandrasekhar's 35, as the spinners harassed the batsmen. Bedi was often brought on in the third over, and had the batsmen in trouble from the start. It was a measure of both his confidence and his generosity that he found time to bowl to Dennis Amiss in the nets to help him sort out his problems.

You have to go back nine decades or so, to Australian leggie Arthur Mailey, to find a kindred soul. Mailey took flak for helping out opponents. Extravagantly talented, both he and Bedi bowled with the lavishness of millionaires. Bedi's credo was first spelt out by Mailey, who said, "I'd rather spin and see the ball hit for four than bowl a batsman out by a straight one." On another occasion Mailey said: "If I ever bowl a maiden over, it's not my fault but the batsman's." It is a sentiment Bedi would understand. Despite one-day cricket, he refused to bring his art down from the classical heights into the sphere of everyday utility. This refusal to compromise has been the hallmark of Bedi the player, the man, the administrator, coach and columnist.

Most people are publicly modest but privately quite immodest about their achievements. In Bedi's case, it is the reverse. In a letter to me, he wrote: "How I played my first Test is still an unsolved mystery. That I went on to captain the country is even more mind-boggling. Cricket is a funny game - always throwing up surprise packets." Few graceful performers are that gracious.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2002